One of the Museum’s most significant holdings is its comprehensive collection of works by Robert Motherwell. Numbering fifty objects—paintings, collages, prints, and sketches—that date from 1941 (the year his career began) to 1990 (the year before his death), this body of work offers a unique opportunity to examine and appreciate the creative range of this major modernist artist. Motherwell, who coined the term “The New York School,” is closely identified with Abstract Expressionism, a movement further represented in the Museum’s collection by works of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, William Baziotes, Franz Kline, and Adolph Gottlieb. Like these artists, Motherwell in the late 1940s embraced the tenets associated with the movement: the canvas as an arena in which the artist engages spontaneously and passionately in the physical and mental action of painting; the composition, often monumental in size, charged with feeling; the abstract forms suggesting deep, open-ended meanings.
In 1941, his first year as a full-time painter, Motherwell traveled to Mexico with Roberto Matta Echaurren. A member of the Surrealists, Matta introduced Motherwell to their process of psychic automatism. Automatism, or automatic writing, was essentially a form of doodling that the Surrealists employed to tap into the unconscious. For Motherwell, automatism (what he came to call “artful scribbling”) became his lifelong “creative principle” and the generative means by which “one’s own being is revealed, willingly or not, which is precisely originality, that burden of modernist individualism.”(1)
One of the fascinating aspects of Robert Motherwell’s work, which is abundantly evident in the Museum’s holdings, is the way it shows both variety and continuity. For example, while later works differ formally from Spanish Picture with Window, many continue its interest in windows and walls. This is especially true of the Open series (1967–75), large monochrome canvases, each with a charcoal-delineated rectangle (or three-sided rectangle), which the artist acknowledged partially derived from white-washed adobe facades. . . . The immediate source for the series was, however, more “automatic.” Coming upon a small painting placed on a larger unfinished one in his studio, Motherwell was so struck by their relationship that he outlined the smaller one in charcoal. The resulting series includes some of the artist’s most minimal, expansive, and seductively beautiful paintings, including the Museum’s Untitled (Ochre Open), 1973, and Summer Open with Mediterranean Blue, 1974. . . . Arguably the starkest and most dramatic of all the Open paintings— the Museum’s Open #150 in Black and Cream (Rothko Elegy), 1970—also carries a more specific reference.
The large composition pays homage to fellow Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, who committed suicide in February 1970. Although Motherwell described his more than twenty-year friendship with Rothko as “tempestuous,” he had the highest regard for Rothko’s art.(2) Motherwell considered Rothko a profound modernist, whose glowing colors spoke of feelings and emotional possibilities totally new to painting.(3) Motherwell called Rothko a “night” painter, by which he meant that Rothko not only worked in darkened studios with windows covered, but also expressed in his works a dark, Romantic spirit “tormented by conflicts, and unrelieved anxiety.”(4) The monumental darkness of Open #150 in Black and Cream (Rothko Elegy), which is simultaneously reinforced and relieved by the lightness of the cream-colored rectangle at top, powerfully evokes the sublimity and poignancy of Rothko’s art.
— Mark Thistlethwaite
(1) Barbaralee Diamonstein, Inside New York’s Art World (New York: Rizzoli Publications, Inc., 1979): 242.
(2) Unpublished recollection, 10 March 1967, in Terenzio, The Collected Writings and Robert Saltonstall Mattison, Robert Motherwell: The Formative Years (Ann Arbor: UMI Press, 1987) 196.
(3) Eulogy read at National Institute of Arts and Letters, 28 January 1971, ibid., 198.